Volunteerism for All

Mr. Michael Mullins, Consul General
Consulate General of the United States, Hyderabad

Nearly one and a half years into his tenure in Hyderabad, United States Consul General Michael Mullins has integrated seamlessly into life in the city, from where he discharges his duties overseeing US government activities in a consular district comprising of Telangana, Andhra Pradesh and Odisha. A popular name and face all over town, Mr. Mullins has worked to strengthen Indo-American ties and reinforce the already-powerful relationship between the countries – in business, diplomacy, culture and education. He has also been incredibly generous with his time and energy, aiding a number of social and charitable endeavours. You & I caught up with the consul general this past week to discuss a range of topics, including his first-hand observations and the satisfaction he gains from helping those who need it most.
You’re one of the more active names when it comes to supporting causes.
It has been a real privilege for me to have been invited to participate in so many different kinds of work in my consular district, which includes the three states of Telangana, Andhra Pradesh and Odisha. I think there are many shared values between our countries and our peoples. We want to help others, we want children to be safe and sound, we want a green and healthy planet, we want children to get an education, and we want people who face challenges to rise above them and have a bright future. I think that both Indian and American civil society organisations are engaging in many of these different arenas. One has to only look at the terrible earthquake that happened in Nepal, where India immediately stepped forward as a leader in saying “What can we do to help you?” I think the impulse to help is omnipresent.
Tell us about the programs with which you’re involved.
The very first interaction I had with the community in Hyderabad in my capacity as consul general was a civil society activity. The American Chamber of Commerce held a symposium on health and healthcare challenges and they asked me to be the chief guest. That was exciting because I realised that this is an incredibly vibrant community dealing with a lot of different social issues. Since then, I’ve learned about many different activities.
Since my arrival, I’ve been struck by the spirit of activism that I see in Hyderabad. There are real opportunities to get involved, and almost everyone I know seems to be associated with one cause or another, whether that’s with helping children, people with disabilities, people who are HIV+ or have AIDS, or many other things. As consul general I’m frequently invited to help, and I’m really happy to do it.
But that spirit of activism is not limited to Hyderabad. I see it throughout all three states in which we work. For example, during my first visit to Visakhapatnam I visited Andhra Medical College. The college hosts a US Centres for Disease Control-funded program that helps HIV+ women by providing them retroviral drugs so that the disease will not be passed on to their unborn children.
On my first visit to Bhubaneshwar, I visited two institutions of higher learning: the Kalinga Institute of Social Science (KISS) and the Kalinga Institute of Industrial Technology (KIIT). The US State Department funds an English Access Microscholarship Program at KISS, in which tribal children are learning English in creative ways. I also flagged off a motorcycle rally to raise awareness about the need to combat gender-based violence. That was a lot of fun, especially when I realised that the activity was organised by a group of older women, yet there was this young group of people on the bikes.
Just a month ago, I visited Bala Vikasa, a Warangal-based NGO that partners with local villages to help provide a wide range of assistance and services: education, water, women’s empowerment and so on. It was interesting to see how one local village had drilled boreholes, extracted water from them, put it through filters, and then dispensed it to the villagers who also managed the boreholes. And if a family needs water after hours, Bala Vikasa provides water through an ATW machine – just like with an ATM cash machine, a family can just swipe a card at the ‘AnyTimeWater’ machine, and out comes 20 litres of water! Closer to home in Hyderabad, I enjoy working with CHORD, an NGO that runs a school for children rescued from bonded labour or poverty. The US government also funds an English Access Microscholarship Program there.
I enjoy interacting with people who are working to lift themselves or their communities. There’s a true variety of things to get involved with, and I feel privileged to be part of them.
Is this all beyond the scope of your official duties?
Actually, some of it ties in with the goals and programs of the US government. I mentioned the English Access Microscholarship Program that we fund at CHORD and KISS, which is intended to give participants English skills that may lead to better jobs and educational prospects. Engaging with communities living with or affected by HIV/AIDS is also a US government priority. To illustrate that, President Barack Obama has appointed a global AIDS coordinator who manages the US President’s Emergency Fund for AIDS Relief (PEPFAR) programs, which funds the Andhra Medical College program I mentioned earlier. PEPFAR represents the largest commitment by any nation to combat a single disease in history.
Mr. Michael Mullins, Consulate General of the United States, Hyderabad 
But sometimes, it’s just about interacting with the community and finding ways to work in these social arenas that is personally fulfilling. An example of that is on May 9, I opened the summer camp for DESIRE Society, which provides a home for kids who have or are affected by HIV/AIDS. Last year on World AIDS Day, I flagged off a rally that same organization hosted. A number of members of our consulate team will visit the camp to play with the kids and participate in organised activities. As much as the consulate works on these various US government priorities, our participation in these events is sometimes just about participating in the community.
Why do you choose to devote so much time and energy to charitable causes?
Consider the relationship shared by the United States and India, which is very strong right now, both politically and commercially. But I think another strength of this connection is our people-to-people ties; we have shared human values that we illustrate every time we participate in these community activities. I also believe it’s a privilege to be involved. I don’t think I’m making big changes, but working together, we can effect change and make progress. So when I get an invitation to an event to promote a social cause, I try to say ‘yes’ as often as I can.
In your experience, which areas merit the most attention?
In terms of deciding where we need to focus our energies and interests, there are many from which to choose. At any rate, it’s not the United States that will decide for India what its social priorities should be; Indians will determine their own priorities. In my engagement with university students, I ask them to think of the challenges that they believe are the most important to India, as well as the solutions to those challenges. These students put a lot of thought and energy into the exercise, and their suggestions are wide ranging. That’s what needs to be done. People should do what resonates with them, and there are so many organisations that can match these different interests.
How can our readers assist the efforts of people who are making a difference?
Everyone should assess their individual goals, needs and feelings and decide for themselves where they should commit their efforts. There are many ways to match one’s interests to a particular cause or organisation. I will mention one opportunity, though there are certainly several more.
For example, United Way is an umbrella organisation that organises many activities, but one thing they now organise every year is the Seva Mela. The first one was two years ago, and at that one, they set up 90 different booths. Each one featured a different NGO or NPO, ranging all across the board covering nearly every area you can think of when it comes to volunteerism: clean water, orphaned children, farmers and agriculture, etc. The booths attracted thousands of visitors over a two-day weekend. Some people came to make donations, but most came to get involved with the organisations present. Last year, the second year it took place, that event grew to include 115 organisations and more visitors. United Way plans to hold an even bigger Mela in 2015.
There are many different organisations, so go find the one that’s right for your time, energy and talent.   

..... as told to Ashwin